Voters wrong about almost everything, says poll

A new survey has embarrassed the British public by showing that they are misinformed about important issues from crime to teenage pregnancy. Does this discredit democracy?

Pop quiz: what proportion of British teenagers become pregnant each year? Ten percent? Twenty? Thirty?

If your guess was in this region, you are in good company: on average, the estimate British people give when posed this question is 15%. Unfortunately, you are also wildly wrong. The true rate of teenage pregnancy in the UK is in fact just 0.6% – 33 times lower than the public believe.

That is just one of the embarrassing errors made by respondents to a new survey by polling agency Ipsos Mori entitled ‘Perils of Perception’. Confronted with statistical questions on a series of heated political issues, voters’ beliefs about the state of their nation consistently failed to come close to the reality.

People apparently believe that a quarter of people in Britain are Muslims. The real figure is one in twenty. Just 8% of British people are jobless, yet the average guess is a startlingly pessimistic 22% (which would put us in straits almost as dire as Greece and Spain). And while 70p in every £100 of benefits claims are thought to be fraudulent, the popular estimate is £24.

Crime is rising, the public insist. It has been falling fairly steadily for 20 years. Britain has a third as many immigrants as we imagine, less than half the number of over-65s and more than nine times fewer single parents.

The researchers identified several interesting patterns. For one thing, we tend to be far more gloomy than the statistics justify. And we are much likelier to believe a statistic when it backs up our subjective opinions. But most striking was the stark fact of how misinformed we are.

This political ignorance is an international phenomenon: in a global comparison of current affairs knowledge by the European Journal of Communications, Britain fared relatively well. One third of Americans, meanwhile, could not even name their Vice President.

Does it matter? Yes, say the survey’s authors: many people who go to the ballot box with the conviction that immigration, crime or benefits are too high may be guided by deeply mistaken beliefs.

Facts, facts, facts

For many who trust in the wisdom of crowds, surveys like this make depressing reading. What is so virtuous about democracy, they ask, when ordinary voters are so desperately and consistently wrong? Rule of the people does not seem so rosy when you realise the people are blind.

But others are less ready to abandon faith in democracy. Our statistical illiteracy is a little embarrassing, they admit, but how many people really vote based on data? Principles, not percentages, are the backbone of our beliefs – and that is just as it should be.

You Decide

  1. Has a statistic ever changed your mind?
  2. Should democracy only exist in societies where people are well-informed?

Activities

  1. Choose an issue you care about and design a survey to determine how well-informed about it your classmates are.
  2. a) What percentage of UK public money is spent on international aid? b) What proportion of the population is Christian? c) Does the government spend more on unemployment benefits or pensions? Guess the answer to each of these questions, then check using the links.

Some People Say...

“Democracy is the worst form of government – except for all the others.’Winston Churchill”

What do you think?

Q & A

You can prove anything with statistics.
So they say. But while it’s true that statistics can easily be manipulated and presented in misleading ways, that’s not a case for dismissing them altogether. If you want to get at the truth behind the numbers, you’ll have to learn to interpret them yourself – that way you will never fall for a politician’s or a newspaper’s sleight of hand.
But stats are so boring!
Don’t be too quick to dismiss them – if you’re a sports fan, for instance, you have probably pored over statistics countless times in the form of league tables, goalscoring records and so on. And many people believe we are currently living through a ‘Big Data revolution’: information technology has made it possible to collect and process data millions of times faster than ever before, and it is yielding some surprising insights.

Word Watch

Greece and Spain
The two major countries which have been hit worst by the Eurozone Crisis: both have rapidly shrinking economies and unemployment rates of over 25%.
Fraudulent
The official figure represents the number of people who lie about their personal circumstances on official documents in order to receive government aid. But some of the public seem to have a broader definition of ‘fraud’ – believing, for instance, that some couples have babies in order to claim child benefit.
Single parents
Again, this particular error may be partly down to the fact that people misunderstood the question: it’s only 3% of all people who are single parents, not 3% of all parents. But even accounting for this the public estimate is probably too high.
Subjective opinions
Psychological studies suggest, in fact, that even statistics that directly contradict our views tend to reinforce the strength of our opinions.

Subjects

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